The Information by James Gleick (Shane's book 11, 2011)

Beginning with African talking drums, this book takes us on a tour of the history of information. It's not just about the history of transferring information between people or places, it's about the concept of information itself. [amtap book:isbn=0007225733]

Gleick is a science writer who, in 1987, wrote the first mainstream book about chaos theory. I haven't read that but I would recommend Faster, his 1999 book about the technology-driven speeding up of everyday life.I had expected The Information to be mostly about the development of the internet and what we think of as 'the information age'. What I hadn't realised, and what Gleick makes clear, is that the information age has been here for hundreds of years.

The development of literacy, for example, led to an explosion of information that left many people wondering how they could possibly keep up. Much later, the arrival of the telegraph led many people to worry about the corrosive effect all these short messages would have on the language.

Plato, Gleick notes, feared that writing would erode the human memory and as recently as the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan was arguing that oral culture was superior to written culture. It's fascinating how similar these arguments are to those we hear today about the internet.

What this book makes clear is that the information around us is not the problem. Our ability to deal with all this information, which for centuries has been more than one person could consume in a lifetime, is dependent on our ability to filter it and find the information that matters.

Central to the book, is Claude Shannon, the founder of information theory. Gleick returns to Shannon's work repeatedly as he explains how information gradually became understood as an essentially digital phenomenon that could be broken down into 'bits'.

Richard Dawkins, Alan Turing, Ada Byron and Samuel Morse are among the many major figures whose contribution to information theory is drawn upon.

One particularly interesting story - in a book filled with many great stories - tells how Morse and his partner Alfred Vail realised that Morse Code would be more efficient if the shortest keystrokes were assigned to the most common letters. With no way to know which letters were most common they went to local newspaper office and counted the letters in the type cases. They structured the code based on what they found.

"Long afterward," Gleick writes, "information theorists calculated that they had come within 15 per cent of an optimal arrangement for telegraphing English text."

Gleick does an excellent job of covering a vast topic and a sweep of hundreds of years. It doesn't feel rushed or shallow and Gleick finds enough stories, such as the one above, to bring each section of the book to life. In places the maths and science can be a little heavy going but those sections are few.

The Information is worth reading if you're interested in how we communicate ideas and understand the world around us.